The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our deepening economic divide is fertile ground for Trump’s demagoguery

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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For some time now, there has been an interesting form of dual demagoguery in Trumpworld’s messaging about Democratic areas of the country. President Trump regularly bashes urban areas and districts represented by nonwhites (shocker!) as infested with crime, drugs, rats and even sewer-clogging needles.

At the same time, nationalist conservatives around Trump, such as Stephen Miller, often depict Democratic America as the redoubt of wealthy elites who sneer regularly about Real America — that is, exurban and rural America — and its virtuous nationalist instincts.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction — cities are of course home to both terrible urban poverty and obscene wealth, often jarringly juxtaposed — but this dualism plays an important political storytelling role. It paints Democratic America as a place to be feared and hated, but also as a place to be scapegoated and blamed for Real America’s problems.

The story this dual demagoguery tells is basically this: Those cosmopolitan, globalist elites have contempt for your way of life, even though it is far more virtuous than the cesspool of moral squalor that surrounds them (even as they titter away in their enclaves); at the same time, they are enriching themselves by exploiting immigrant labor and rigging trade deals in their favor, destroying your jobs and way of life.

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A new study from the Brookings Institution helps explain why this sort of thing might have some potency. It finds that Democratic and Republican areas of the country are diverging economically even faster than you thought.

This is true in both income and GDP, when you compare Democratic and Republican congressional districts:

Democratic districts have seen their median household income soar in a decade — from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 in 2018. By contrast, the income level in Republican districts began slightly higher in 2008, but then declined from $55,000 to $53,000.
Underlying these changes have been eye-popping shifts in economic performance. Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.

Underpinning these shifts is accelerating polarization of the economy:

Democratic districts, for example, have grown significantly more dynamic in the last decade. Overall, “blue” territories have seen their productivity climb from $118,000 per worker in 2008 to $139,000 in 2018 as recent demographic changes and electoral sorting ensured they became better educated and more urban. Republican-district productivity, by contrast, remains stuck at about $110,000, reflecting only slight improvements of bachelor’s degree attainment and Republicans’ increasingly non-metro domain.
Relatedly, and equally striking, Democratic districts are rapidly increasing their dominance of the nation’s urban-tilting professional and digital services employment while ceding their historical, more rural shares of manufacturing and agriculture-mining activity. Just since 2008, Democratic districts’ share of professional and digital services employment surged from 63.7% to 71.1%, while their share of the nation’s manufacturing and extractive activities shrunk from 53.8% to 43.6% and 46.1% to 39.5%, respectively.
Conversely, Republican districts — failing as a group to gain traction in the new sectors — have reverted to more “traditional” ones. GOP districts’ professional and digital employment fell from 36.3% to 28.9% of the total in just 10 years, for example, while their shares of manufacturing and agriculture-mining increased from 46.2% to 56.4% and 53.9% to 60.5%, respectively.

The polarization along educational lines is just as stark, the study notes.

When liberals point out this kind of thing, it’s often dismissed as more sneering elitism. But in fact, progressive economists and the Democratic presidential candidates regularly discuss ways of closing this divergence.

And the simple fact is that this divergence is a real thing, a problem that really does need to be addressed.

“We not only have two entrenched economies, but ones that have sorted about as thoroughly as you can imagine,” Mark Muro, one of the study’s authors, told me Thursday.

“Blue America has prospered increasingly as the nation’s urban, diverse, professional and digital services domain, whereas red America been slumping as the nation’s rural, homogeneous, agricultural and manufacturing realm,” Muro continued.

When Trump blames elites for selling out the industrial heartland, he’s speaking to a genuine sense that his voters live in a different economy than Democratic voters do — one that actually has done better from digitalization and globalization, making it ripe for scapegoating and fearmongering, Muro noted.

“The current state of affairs allows for a double cultural war,” Muro said. “The president appeals to the GOP base’s heavier orientation to manufacturing while at the same time stoking exurban and rural resentments of the prosperous ‘hellhole’ cities,” Muro said.

So Trumpism’s narrative — its industrial virtue-signaling; its narrative of “pastoral supremacy,” as Will Wilkinson has called it; and its fearmongering about urban America — is aimed at experiences of the economy that, for many people, are very real. Trump’s solutions to these problems have proven to be largely fraudulent, of course, but he does demagogue them to great effect.

Read more:

Kate Cohen: When we think of America, we shouldn’t think rural

Art Cullen: Help wanted: Rural America needs immigrants

Christine Emba: The tide is shifting in Virginia